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‘America’s governors’: Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom take the lead on coronavirus

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
(Associated Press)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo adopted the role of truth-teller as he delivered grave news Thursday during his daily coronavirus briefing: 100 more people in the state had died, bringing the death toll to 385. So far, about 37,000 New Yorkers had tested positive for the virus, and well over 1,000 were hospitalized in intensive care units.

Then he sought to console residents reeling from the enormity of the crisis.

“No one has been here before. And that’s why, look, it is going to change us,” said Cuomo, whose briefings have been aired live across the nation. “I can see it in my daughters’ eyes when I talk to them about this every night. I can see the fear.... They’re taking it all in. What does it mean? This is going to form a new generation and it will transform who we are and how we think. But you’re not alone. You’re not alone. Nobody is alone.”

Less than 24 hours earlier and 2,500 miles away, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced mortgage relief for those who have been affected by COVID-19, and warned against complacency.

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“We can defeat this virus. But we can’t defeat it unless we commit to fulfilling our individual obligations and our collective responsibilities to meet this moment. The stay-at-home orders are real,” Newsom said, in remarks that cut into soap opera and talk show broadcasts across California. “Let’s meet this moment. Let’s follow through. Halfway is no way.”

Los Angeles Times’ visual coverage of the coronavirus crisis

The two men — well-known Democrats with presidential ambitions who could someday face each other as rivals — have been somewhat of a footnote in national politics since declining to seek the White House in 2020. But with COVID-19 spreading throughout the United States, Cuomo’s and Newsom’s profiles have grown exponentially across the country as their demands for action, pleas for aid and calls for shared sacrifice defined the Democratic response to the pandemic. They have become the opposition party’s foil to President Trump.

With the federal government leaving much of the decision-making to the states, Newsom and Cuomo are among the state and local leaders who have filled a vacuum. In the process, they have overshadowed Joe Biden, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, who lacks an elected office to use as a perch to weigh in on the pandemic.

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Gov. Gavin Newsom
Gov. Gavin Newsom updates the state’s response to the coronavirus at the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services in Rancho Cordova, Calif.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Newsom is the governor of the nation’s most populous state, while Cuomo leads the country’s financial and media epicenter. Their experience, plus their status as relatively younger faces representing the new generation in the Democratic Party, placed the two politicians in prime position to step into leadership roles during this crisis, said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran New York political consultant who advised Cuomo’s 2014 reelection bid but also worked against him in the past.

He likened it to Sept. 11, when the terrorist attacks propelled then-New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani into the national spotlight.

“If Rudy Giuliani was America’s mayor, then for everything west of the Mississippi, Gavin Newsom is America’s governor and for everything east of the Mississippi, Andrew Cuomo is America’s governor,” Sheinkopf said. “Both of these men have the opportunity to galvanize their states and to galvanize large portions of the nation in a way that hasn’t happened since 9/11.”

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Gov. Gavin Newsom has ordered Californians to stay at home. With businesses and popular destinations closed, The Times’ Luis Sinco documented the surreal scenes.

A poll this week from Monmouth University found that governors across the board are getting high marks for the handling of this crisis, and that their favorability remains high among Democrats, Republicans and independents — contrasting with the much more partisan breakdown of opinion on Trump’s leadership.

“Right now, it’s the governors, rather than the president, who are benefiting from this ‘rally round the flag’ effect you get in these kinds of crises,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute.

Governors of both parties have been praised for their response to the pandemic, including Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer and Washington’s Jay Inslee, both Democrats, and Ohio’s Mike DeWine, a Republican. But Cuomo and Newsom have received a disproportionate share of attention, because of a combination of happenstance and their actions.

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo after speaking to the media at the Javits Convention Center, which is being turned into a hospital to help fight coronavirus cases in New York City.
(Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / Getty Images)

New York and California are among the states most affected by the coronavirus, in part because they are keystones to international industries such as tourism, finance, media, technology and entertainment. Both states also have strong public health systems forged in the AIDS crisis that created an early understanding of the potential impacts of the pandemic.

Newsom and Cuomo were thrust into a leading role because the federal government failed to coordinate a major relief effort and left states to search for masks, ventilators and other medical necessities, creating a “Hunger Games”-like competition for crucial supplies, said Peter Ragone, a Democratic strategist who has advised both of them.

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“In the absence of federal leadership, you have two incredibly talented governors who have stepped into the void, who are managing the brunt of the crisis for the country at the moment,” Ragone said. “Their actions have been incredibly consequential not just for their states but also for the United States of America.”

Newsom notably drew attention when he became the first governor to order all his state’s residents to stay home with limited exceptions. Hundreds of thousands of people regularly watch Newsom’s briefings online, which are broadcast on the governor’s official Facebook and Twitter pages.
His directives have been praised by former critics, including Republican strategist Tim Rosales, who managed the campaign of Newsom’s 2018 opponent.

“Considering his leadership on #COVID2019 to date during this crisis, I don’t think there’s any doubt our governor can hit big-league pitching,” Rosales wrote about Newsom on Twitter this month. “Networks should carry his daily briefings from @Cal_OES live if they aren’t already. Well done #California.”

Trump’s former United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley, tweeted favorably about Cuomo’s daily briefings.

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“Confession: I look forward to watching Gov. Cuomo’s press conference every day. I get a kick out of how he talks about govt issues and then goes into a therapy session,” wrote Haley, a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate.

Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, referred to Cuomo as “my governor” as he praised his briefings.

But with the two governors’ increased national exposure comes risks. They could face a backlash if the pandemic grows unchecked in their states.

“We’re not even in the middle of this challenge, much less at the end of it. We still have to wait to see if the curve starts to bend before anyone can declare victory,” said former California Gov. Gray Davis. If Cuomo and Newsom were to be judged in a baseball analogy, he said, “we’re in inning two, maybe three. They’ve gotten off to a very good start. But there’s still a lot of innings left.”

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Andrew Cuomo
A discarded medical mask sits on the ground as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks to the media.
(Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Stylistically, Cuomo and Newsom are different. The New York governor is no-nonsense during his updates. On Thursday, as he described the state’s budget dilemma — increased costs to pay for dealing with the virus, reduced revenue because of the economic hit — he rattled off dollar figures before concluding in his Queens-accented voice: “That is a ton of money.”

Newsom, who built his profile in California as a business-friendly technocrat, has highlighted his ties to the private sector in his briefings, name-checking moguls such as Virgin Group’s Richard Branson and Elon Musk of Tesla and empathizing with hurting companies by referencing his own entrepreneurial history. At times, he slips into the jargon-heavy language of a Silicon Valley start-up; during Wednesday’s briefing, he spoke of the need to “socialize some continuity.”

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Both interject personal notes into their announcements. Newsom raised the difficulty of talking to his daughter about the possibility of not having school for the rest of the academic year; Cuomo declared his elderly mother was “not expendable” when a Texas politician suggested some seniors ought to sacrifice their lives to help the economy recover more quickly for their grandchildren.

While they share policy priorities, the two men have not walked in lockstep. The most recent example is the $2-trillion virus relief bill approved by the U.S. Senate on Wednesday and by the House on Friday. Newsom praised the bill’s added benefits for the unemployed in California, while Cuomo faulted it as “irresponsible” and “reckless” for the amount of relief it provides for New York and other state and local governments.

One area where they have aligned is their approach to the president. Cuomo and Newsom have largely avoided directly blasting Trump, and at times have lauded efforts by his administration.

It’s an odd turn for liberal politicians, who previously have been outspoken about their disagreements with Trump, but one that’s strategically smart, according to political observers.

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“It dramatically increases the likelihood that the Trump administration will cooperate in fulfilling the state’s most pressing needs,” said Dan Schnur, a political science professor at USC and UC Berkeley.

Newsom has said his first priority is helping Californians navigate the worst health crisis this country has seen in more than a century, not bickering with the president on social media.

“I’m working to solve problems, not create problems,” Newsom told reporters this month. “I’m willing to put aside our differences on a lot of issues to meet this moment, so I can meet the needs of the people in the state of California. And I think we’re better off when we’re working partners, not sparring partners.”

Trump has noticed. While the president has disparaged Michigan Gov. Whitmer as “failing” and Washington Gov. Inslee as a “snake” over their handling of the pandemic, he has praised Cuomo and Newsom. Last Friday, he applauded them for “taking very bold steps.” And Trump’s campaign officials have pointed out that the two Democrats have offered kind words about the president’s response to the crisis.

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“I watched, over the last few days, Gov. Cuomo, I watched Gavin Newsom,” Trump said on Sunday. “I watched both of them. And they’ve been, you know, very complimentary.”

Times staff writer Taryn Luna in Sacramento contributed to this report.


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